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Reflections on my Collaboration with John Keppel

My life – or at least my memory – begins on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Our family lived in Rio de Janeiro, where my father was Political Counselor of the U.S. Embassy.  My mother was having a tea party for the wives of officers in the Political Section in our apartment on Copacabana, a couple of floors down from the apartment of the President of Brazil.  The government had officially moved to Brazilia, but no one in the Brazilian elite or the diplomatic colony was in any hurry to leave life-loving Rio.  I was seven years old, and on walking through the schoolyard on my way home that afternoon, I had said to myself “Something terrible is going to happen today.” 

It had not been a presentiment of Dallas.  Instead it reflected rising tension in Brazil and in the U.S. Embassy, where my father, John Keppel, was locked in a debate that, bluntly stated, was about how far the United States should go to overthrow our upstairs neighbor, the leftist President of Brazil, João Goulart.  Goulart was no Fidel Castro, much less Che Guevara; at most, he was the potential Brazilian Hugo Chavez of his day.  He proposed tax reform that forced foreign multinational corporations to invest in Brazil, not repatriate profits, and he wanted to expropriate the large unproductive estates that characterize so much landholding in Brazil, long one of the world’s most unequal countries.  

The Kennedy administration split over Goulart.  On the one side were liberals associated with Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, the successor to Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy.  On the other side were Cold Warriors and imperialists.  The immediate issue was a planned Latin American trip by Kennedy, a Harvard classmate, though not a close friend, of my father.  The trip never took place because of Dallas, but in the background was covert aid – money and weapons – to Goulart’s right-wing opponents in the Brazilian elite and military.      

Kennedy’s murder removed the obstacle to the coup, a liberal Alliance for Progress supporter, Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin, whom Lyndon Johnson replaced with the more conservative Thomas Clifton Mann.  On March 28, 1964, in a telegram declassified after my father’s death, U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon cabled Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy,  C.I.A. Director John McCone, and notorious clandestine operator Col. J. C. King, warning that Goulart could make Brazil another communist China.  Ambassador Gordon suggests  that clandestine services provide an “unmarked submarine to be off-loaded at night in isolated shore spots” with “delivery of arms of non-US origin, to be made available to Castelo Branco supporters in Sao Paulo” to await the appropriate “trigger incident” for the coup.  The military dictatorship lasted twenty years, and Brazil’s future President, Dilma Rousseff, since impeached by some of the same rightist political forces, was tortured in the regime’s jails.  

As Political Counselor in the Embassy, John was a leading exponent of the Cold War view that Goulart was sliding toward communism.  As a small boy, I was of course not privy to the details of these debates.  Even in later years, he never mentioned the transfer of weapons.  But I remember his coming home early with high blood-pressure.  I remember on another occasion asking him about the rasping noise from my parents’ bedroom and his saying to me, “That is your own mother,” who had asthma.  I remember the night before our departure, when a dapper gentleman turned up at the door of our apartment with replacement salt-and-pepper suitcases (ours had deteriorated) and then invited us to a late night reception with the Generals at the Presidential palace, an invitation my father declined.  The gentleman was Dick Walters, the “Army Attaché,” that is, the C.I.A. station chief, who went on to play a part in other Latin American coups, briefly became C.I.A. Director, and met his political end in Watergate. Walters had the motto, “Flattery will get you somewhere” and was as much at home with piano wire as with fluent translation.

John was not one for conversions on the road to Damascus or for self-flagellation.  He was self-forgiving — he himself would often say, slightly self-indulgent: unlike his occasionally borderline anorexic son, he liked his Gouda.  Unlike penitents who enjoy publicly confessing their sins, John did not like to talk about his role in Brazil, even with me.  But Rio was the turning point of his life, leading away from the track to becoming Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and starting a long path that led to this book, as well as his role in the investigation of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 disaster.

John was an occasional — also a somewhat unfashionable, indeed old fashioned — poet.  One of his poems, written about a day of battle in World War II, begins:

Free now to leave the field,

To wander sandy roads

And stare at vines against the sky.

As these lines suggest, John was by temperament artistic, even dreamy; and it was only events that thrust him into public affairs.

He grew up destined for the family art business.  His grandfather Frederick Keppel was a brilliant if not unduly pious Irish protestant of Dutch ancestry, who first landed in Canada as a farmer.  But he fell off a bale of hay onto a pitchfork that pierced his lungs, gave up farming and went to New York, where he became the first dealer in etchings and engravings in North America.  He cultivated Victorian eccentricity, including keeping a crow on his shoulder during meals, more than kindness.  When his elder son declined to follow his father in the art business, instead becoming a foundation executive, Frederick Keppel totally disinherited him.  It remained to his younger son – John’s father – David Keppel to divide the inheritance.  That was no great hardship in the plush years before the crash of 1929, when John was twelve.   His teen years came with a sense of doom.

John was a shy child, and he passionately loved his toy sailboat.  To his surprise, he turned out to be an able student.  As a history of fine arts major at Harvard, he wrote his Senior thesis on Francesco Goya’s remarkable series The Disasters of War.

He would soon witness them.  He was a division commander’s aide in the Normandy campaign in World War II.  This experience, where many of his friends and comrades were killed, convinced him he could not return to the family art business.

In 1947, he entered the U.S. Foreign Service and began studying Russian.  He met Grace in Washington as they were both preparing to go to Moscow, and their courtship took place in walks around the Kremlin. 

John brought to diplomacy both his natural tact and an artistic flair for interpretation.  He became a Kremlinologist.  These were Stalin’s last days and the period immediately following – a time when the exact lineup at a parade, or small wording differences between the editorial in Pravda (the Party paper) and Izvestya (the government paper) were the only clues to great power struggles.

Though he was a young analyst, John helped write some of the decisive cables trying to tell a Washington in the grip of Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria that change in the Soviet Union, while slow, was real.

When John died, we called Sir John Morgan, a retired British diplomat, who had been John’s counterpart in the British Embassy.  He wrote to Grace:

“I have so many happy memories of our time together.  To meet you both, on our first diplomatic posting in Moscow, was an inspiration.  John’s analytical understanding of the arcane ritual in the immediate post-Stalin era – of what actually went on in the Kremlin – was the envy of all the diplomatic missions.  We thought we were pretty good in our own Embassy – but John got it right and we did not.”

But John did not get it right in Brazil, and it was the Cold War framework that led him, like so many others, astray.  The first lesson he took from the experience was that the United States had no business choosing who should govern other countries or even who was our “friend” there — an obvious lesson, perhaps, but still unlearned by U.S. policymakers.  In place of the State Department’s traditional area studies and political analysis, John became interested in what he called “functional affairs”: food, water, population.  

Yet it was not just a new understanding of the dangers of American imperialism that spurred this life-change, but something more personal and painful. John was always torn between the private and public, between lyric poetry and the bureaucratic memorandum.  Even when he had been an art student, he was torn: he wanted to draw and paint, but his father asked him to continue the family business and thus to do art history.  Only when the war and the State Department displaced that did he have a legitimate reason to tell his father he did not mean to follow in father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and the firm would thus have to close.  Even in his years of great success in the Foreign Service, and even married to my warm and extroverted mother, he was an introvert who held his breath, a habit he said he had acquired listening to a crystal radio set as a boy, and jiggled his knee, to my exasperation for years.  

John said that those who get to the top need to have more than analytical brilliance (something he in any case always disavowed): they need the ability calmly to destroy colleagues in bureaucratic infighting.  And they need to get out of bed in the morning without the least scruple about their failures, even their crimes against humanity.  After the conflict in Rio, the State Department offered him a post in the Embassy in Pakistan, under an Ambassador who was a political appointee, a Coca Cola executive and friend of Lyndon Johnson.  John said No and took a more modest job at the Foreign Service Institute, which educates and reeducates diplomats.  It was clearly not the route to an ambassadorship.  One of my early memories is back from Rio as he explained to a friend why he was doing this.  I do not recall the reason he gave at the time.  

 After a brief time in Washington teaching fellow Foreign Service Officers his old specialty of Soviet politics, he began to reeducate himself.  His first step was to take a year’s leave to study population at Johns Hopkins, and then, after a couple of years in the population office of the State Department to leave the Foreign Service and work for Philippine politician Rafael Salas in the founding years of the United Nations Population Fund. He relished working in a truly international organization and learning new cultural and intellectual approaches.  But he was still restless.

Our family is not alone in this, but we sensed that the global political, social, and ecological crisis at the beginning of a new millennium (after a terrible two decades, one no longer calls it a dawn) is one crisis, and is inseparable from a deep crisis in humans’ way of seeing and understanding their world and themselves.  It is as basic as the difference between life and machines, or between manipulation and nurture.  The manipulative approach is very useful – right up to the point where we can destroy our world and therefore ourselves.  At that point – which is now – it is not romantic but simply practical to learn a new way of thinking and acting.

John’s eldest sibling, his sister Mary (Dorothy Keppel Fraser) was a microbiologist turned heretic and a key influence.  A sickly child, she was a precocious poet but above all a naturalist.  Mary became a microbiologist and protégée of Salvador Luria, a Nobel Prize microbiologist at M.I.T.  As the Vietnam War put her draft age son at risk, she moved with her son and daughter to Canada, to a part of Vancouver Island that could be reached only by boat, and they built their own houses amid the great trees.  By this time, she was a thorough heretic about the genocentric view of life.  

In 1974, John retired from the United Nations Population Fund.  I had graduated from The Phillips Exeter Academy and entered Winchester College — not a college in the American sense but the oldest and one of the most intellectual English “public” (meaning the opposite) schools.  I wanted to go to Oxford and read English literature.  Through until my twelfth birthday I was sure I was going to be President when I turned forty, my teen years saw me turn from politics to literature, especially the magnificently complex novels of Henry James, whose writing style I imitated to an exasperating degree.

Given our grossly unequal society’s pretense of populism, many writers and almost all politicians would conceal such an experience.  But it shaped me in direct ways for which I am grateful and refractory ones that were even more valuable, holding a mirror up to the unspoken snobbery of my upbringing and showing it to be anything but gentle.  The British class system, which Americans romanticize watching Masterpiece Theater or, in my case, reading Henry James, turned out — in its “public school” version — to feature a clever but cruel boy leading others in torturing the fat boy from Yorkshire with asthma and limited money.  I wonder whether the victim had a happy life.  The tormentor became one of the world’s great journalists with a social conscience.

 John had been talking about writing a book with the numbing title, “The Crisis of the System.”  One of the things thirty years of bureaucracy will teach you is to be as bad a writer as possible, so that your official memos are too soporific to be politically damaging.  More important, though, was his insight, hardly original but surely central: that we were facing not multiple crises but multiple manifestations of one crisis.

In May, 1975, Grace and John came to see me at Winchester and then we spent the long weekend of a “Leave Out” in the Georgian market town of Blanford Forum.  I asked John what he planned to do in retirement.  He said that he and Grace planned to write a travel history of New England.  With the arrogance of an 18 year-old, I replied, “Oh, Dad, that isn’t ambitious enough.  Why don’t you try to write the equivalent of Montaigne’s Essays for the present time?”  I had been reading Montaigne at Winchester and was fascinated by his digressive style and open mind, so expressive of the possibilities of the Renaissance, liberated from the shackles of the Middle Ages and not yet desiccated by the mechanistic thought of Montaigne’s successor René Descartes.

The suggestion intrigued John, and when he and Grace got back to Connecticut, he went to the Yale Co-Op bookstore and browsed for sources.  Montaigne, writing at a stand-up desk in the wonderful tower of his small chateau near Bordeaux, wrote his Essays as ever more expansive margin notes on the classic texts he was reading.  John somehow put his hand on three seminal books that became the basis of our project: Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine, Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.  They opened three great, interrelated questions: What has gone wrong, that humans are now threatening the Earth and therefore themselves?  What new ways of thinking are emerging in science, beyond reductionism?  How should human society be organized to give people a meaningful life?  

The unifying idea here was that whatever was wrong with what we were doing in the world somehow mirror an error in our way of thinking, and replacing that flawed model with a better one could make a critical difference to the world and ourselves.  It seemed obvious but turned out to be a stumbling block with early readers.  Surely we didn’t imagine that bad philosophy, instead of the military-industrial complex, was the cause of the nuclear arms race?  But although ideas do not cause a social system, they tend to mirror it, and new ideas can inspire people to change it.

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